Water & Drought

San Luis Reservoir in California could fill for first time in six years

San Luis Reservoir west of Los Banos is on its way to filling for the first time since 2011 as rain and snow bring the state additional relief from a punishing drought.

Statewide, a series of storms over the past two weeks have allowed water managers to fill major reservoirs to above-normal levels for this time of year.

Meanwhile, a healthy snowpack is giving southern San Joaquin Valley farmers hope that irrigation water this summer will be plentiful because the southern Sierra Nevada snowpack is now estimated at 124 percent of the average for April 1 – and winter isn’t over yet.

There has been so much rain that Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency Monday for 50 California counties, including Fresno, Madera, Tulare, Kings and Merced counties and every other county in the Central Valley.

San Luis Reservoir is a key tool in the state’s water management system. It is used by both the state and federal governments to hold water for urban and agricultural use.

As of Tuesday, it is a little more than three-fourths full – 78 percent – and could be full by April 1.

“The signs are certainly positive at this point,” said John Leahigh, water operations manager for the State Water Project, which pumps from the San Joaquin Delta into San Luis Reservoir.

The state will fill its share of the reservoir by the first part of February, and “it’s looking very hopeful” that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation will fill its share by the end of March, he said.

The lake can hold about 2 million acre-feet of water, and the state claims a little more than half of the space. As of Tuesday, the state had filled about 90 percent of its share, and the federal government had filled about 64 percent of its share.

Westlands Water District, which covers about 1,000 square miles of farmland in Fresno and Kings counties, gets Central Valley Project water from the reservoir, but is watching with concern as it fills.

“Yes, we’re thankful that it’s a banner year in terms of hydrology – it’s going to go down as one of the best,” said Johnny Amaral, deputy general manager of external affairs.

But with “the feast or famine way of operating the project ... the San Luis reservoir is going to fill and fill soon,” he said.

The problem is that when the reservoir fills, farmers who bought water in the drought to save for future use must remove it or lose it, he said.

“It’s expensive water,” Amaral said. “We’re trying to do everything we can to mitigate the impact on growers. It’s tough to manage.”

Craig Trombly, a Department of Water Resources civil engineer overseeing the State Water Project, said moving out so-called carryover water is normal procedure.

“It’s part of the orderly management of the contracts,” he said, and efforts are being made to find room in other lakes to store it.

Trombly is focused on the big picture: “We have lots of water for 2017 supply,” he said. “We can’t lose sight of that.”

Meanwhile on the east side of the Valley, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is raising Millerton Lake, which on Tuesday was 72 percent full. Inflow was about 14,422 cubic feet per second while outflow from Friant Dam was down to 4,000 cfs.

With no storms forecast, the bureau believes it’s safe to let the lake rise. But if significant storms are forecast, managers would start lowering the lake, said spokesman Louis Moore.

Irrigation district managers are starting to get excited about all the rain and the prospect of getting surface water this summer from Millerton Lake, via the Friant-Kern Canal, for both irrigation and groundwater recharge.

“They (Bureau of Reclamation) should be in a position to deliver 100 percent of Class 1 and a significant amount of Class 2,” said Eric Quinley, general manager of the Delano-Earlimart Irrigation District, referring to federal terms for different types of water delivery.

The Friant Water Authority, which represents 11 irrigation districts, said it’s waiting for the Feb. 1 snow survey before knowing what to expect.

“The drought certainly feels like it’s over, whether it is or not,” authority spokesman Alex Biering said. “Our suspicion is the storms have been colder than we thought they would be. That’s good. It means there will be more snow, and the snowmelt and runoff will carry us through into spring and into the irrigation season.”

Pine Flat Lake on the Kings River also is rising. As of Tuesday, it was 59 percent full. The lake can hold 1 million acre-feet and was holding about 587,000, so there is room for another 58,000 before the Army Corps on Engineers would release water in advance of storms, said spokesman Tyler Stalker.

Meanwhile, smaller dams managed by the corps, such as at Kaweah, Success, McClure and Hidden lakes, are releasing water to make room for potential new storms, he said.

Lewis Griswold: 559-441-6104, @fb_LewGriswold

Rainy winter

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Oct. 1-Jan. 23

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Source: National Weather Service